Yes, Cocaine Bear is based on a true story. But how much? We asked the film’s director, Elizabeth Banks, how closely Cocaine Bear sticks to the facts and how much it tweaks the true story of a bear who got ahold of a bunch of cocaine that drug trafficker Andrew C. Thornton II dropped while jumping out of a plane in September of 1985.
Spoilers follow, as do many references to deadly bears and cocaine.
The True Story of Cocaine Bear
In real life, as in the movie, Thornton died on impact when his parachute failed to open. The famous Cocaine Bear, nicknamed “Pablo Escabear,” was found dead three months later in December of 1985. The bear’s cause of death was a cocaine overdose, and next to the bear’s body was one of the bags of cocaine that Thornton dropped.
No humans were harmed by the bear in real life that we know of, but in Cocaine Bear the movie, the bear goes on a murderous rampage after getting into the bag of cocaine, killing several people while desperately seeking out her next high.
What Does Cocaine Bear Make Up?
In short, Banks tells us, most of the story is made up after the point that Thornton jumps out of the plane and the bear first sniffs the cocaine.
“We don’t know. That’s the true answer,” Banks says of the truth behind what happened before the real-life bear ultimately overdosed on cocaine.
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“What we know is that the police never recovered any of the bags of coke that Andrew Thorton dumped that night, and that three months later, a black bear was found… in the Chattahoochee forest, next to one of the same bags that Andrew Thornton had with him. The bag was empty and the bear had died of it, had OD’d on the cocaine.”
Filled with as many questions as well all undoubtedly have, screenwriter Jimmy Warden came up with a colorful storyline that imagines what could have happened if the bear had come into contact with people.
“So what we don’t know is, was that the only bear that had the coke? Were there other bears? Were there people that are in the path of the bear? We don’t know,” Banks said. “So that’s the imagined jumping-off point for us — the coke lands on the ground in the forest and the bear finds it. And then everything else is Jimmy Warden’s imagination, basically.”
So far, no one is complaining about the lack of strict adherence to facts within Cocaine Bear. The film has a 70 among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 80 among audiences.
The cast of Cocaine Bear features Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margot Martindale, and Ray Liotta in one of his last roles before his death in May 2022.
The film is Banks’ third feature as a director. The Hunger Games star also directed 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie Angels reboot. She also acted in both films, though she sadly does not appear in Cocaine Bear. Other recent roles include a terrific surprise appearance in Prime Video’s The Boys. (She appeared in 2008 with one of the show’s executive producers, Seth Rogen, in 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno.)
The Cocaine Bear producers include Banks, Matt Reilly, Christine Sun, Aditya Sood, Christopher Miller, Phil Lord, Brian Duffield, and Banks’ husband, Max Handelman. Executive producers include Nikki Baida and Alison Small.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters.
Main Image: Keri Russell and the bear in Cocaine Bear. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.